The Rise of Disability Stigma | JSTOR Daily

Stigmas around disability run so deep that it can be hard to imagine what a society that fully included disabled people would look like. But it may be helpful to look at the way attitudes toward disability have shifted with social and economic change.

Until the late nineteenth century, historian Douglas C. Baynton writes, the words most often used to describe what we would now call disability were “infirmity” and “affliction.” But these terms did not cleanly separate the disabled from everyone else. Anyone might suffer the “infirmities of age” or an “infirmity of purpose.” And an “affliction” could be anything from poverty to grief at the death of a loved one.

Human progress depended on personal and national “fitness.”

Afflictions and infirmities were seen not just as ubiquitous but as divinely ordained. Speaking in 1818, Laurent Clerc, cofounder of the first school for the deaf in the United States, said that the deaf “cannot but thank God for having made us Deaf and Dumb, hoping that in the future world, the reason of this may be explained to us all.”

By the 1890s, things were changing. Industrialization and the growing popular understanding of evolution encouraged Americans to think of life in competitive terms. [...]

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